It's not uncommon for racial slurs to be adopted by the population they were once meant to insult. Perhaps the clearest example is the n-word -- which was "traditionally" used by White individuals to discriminate against black individuals, but has recently been reclaimed by the black community.
Reclaimed words are often controversial due to their original pejorative nature, and remain controversial both inside and outside the community. Often, not all members of a given community support the idea of reclaiming a particular slur, even as others embrace it.
Previous studies have found that the use of reappropriated slurs can be used among the targeted group as a means of affiliation rather than derogation. But studies on the use of reappropriated use of racial slurs against Black people used on White people are still scarce.
Previous research has suggested (correlationally) that group members with socially dominant attitudes perceived a Black individual using “nigga” affiliatively toward a White person as threatening, and this threat was related to more negative perceptions of the reappropriated slur use and greater perceptions that prejudice toward Black individuals is justified. But according to a new study, White people in general tend to react positively when the n-word is used towards them.
“I am fascinated in understanding why people continue to exhibit extreme forms of prejudice despite society typically discouraging their use. Within this understanding, I am most interested in how to combat the negative effects of racial slurs, racial humor, and racially disparaging language more broadly,” said study author Conor O’Dea, a visiting assistant professor at Skidmore College.
In the new study, 324 White participants read a brief story about a Black person using a slur to refer to a White person during a basketball game. In one version of the story, they were friends and in another, they were strangers. The slur used in the story varied from “nigger” to “nigga” to “cracker” to “asshole” to “buddy.” Researchers then evaluated how participants view these different slurs.
The participants tended to consider “nigger” and “nigga” as less derogatory than “cracker” and “asshole” when told by a Black person to a White person. Participants also tended to consider slurs used between friends as less offensive, less derogatory, and more affiliative than slurs used between strangers. But overall, while some participants tended to receive n-word slurs less derogatorily and even rather positively, they were still less positive than the simpler "buddy".
Furthermore, the potential of slurs to be negative in connotation outweigh the positive aspects, the researchers warn.
“Above anything else, I think that people should realize the potential for racial slurs to be incredibly negative for people belonging to marginalized groups and to not take their use lightly,” O’Dea told PsyPost.
The study has been published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology